Cricket

The Breathless and the Breathtaking

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Delhi’s best, Virat Kohli, breaks batting barriers despite Delhi’s worst, its air, at the Feroz Shah Kotla Test

FOR A BETTER PART of the last three decades, the fall of the second wicket in Test matches has been a cause of unrivalled euphoria to the Indian cricket fan. The moment of ecstasy is traitorous in nature, but devoutly nationalistic at the same time. For it once meant Sachin Tendulkar was going to walk out to bat. Today, it signals the entry of Virat Kohli. And because this is Delhi, a thousand Virat Kohlis are up on their feet, feet mostly on seats, as their lookalike makes his way to the middle.

Unlike his great predecessor, Kohli doesn’t walk out to bat. His entry has the intensity of an accidentally opened WhatsApp video in a cinema hall. He trots down the dressing room stairs, his bat swinging across his waist, flying into the swathe of green with a hop that is almost a leap. Once past the ropes, Kohli jogs on the spot and only then jogs into space. The bat is also called a blade so he swings it around his shoulders like a windmill—right arm first, then left, then right again. There’s a whir by his legs too, a march so poised that his pads flap against his thighs.

Somewhere around the dotted demarcations of the infield, the cover drives are put to a shadow test. Two prancing, heavy bottom handed swishes later, Kohli is where he wants to be. Had he expended all that energy here, at the batting crease, Kohli would’ve quite easily found himself on 34 not out. But don’t be fooled by the 0 (0), many world class bowlers will swear that he may well be.

This entry, then, is the crux, the boiled-down essence of why Kohli is the best there is in the world today. Unlike Tendulkar, he wasn’t born perfect. But before our very eyes, over the last five years or so, he has willed himself to get to and then inhabit a state closest to Tendulkar’s. He got there by metamorphosing physically, from flabby to fit, and mentally, from brat to brilliant, so brilliant that he is now the prototype for anyone who wants to excel in this ultra-modern era of cricket. It helps us, the viewers observing at home, understand just how he has accumulated over 5,300 international runs (across formats) over the last two calendar years. In the three Test match series against Sri Lanka alone, which India won 1-0 following the draw in this final Test in Delhi, he will end up scoring 610 runs in four innings—a fifty, a hundred and two double tons (including his highest score) to boot. It makes us, in the stands and terraces of cricket stadiums around the world, casually expect of him the impossible.

Doh sau maarega toh mazaa aayega,” a gentleman in his late 30s, striking due to his bright yellow turban in the Old Clubhouse Stand of the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, says to anyone listening in a radius of 20 metres, as spectators in Delhi tend to do. When his statement is affirmed with widespread nods and easy giggles, his son hugs his arm with pride. One listener adds: “Sau toh waise pucca hai.”

Pucca hai. A certainty. And who are we to assume otherwise? The last time Kohli walked out to bat in Test cricket, in Nagpur, he scored 213. And before that, he struck 104 in Kolkata. This is, after all, a man who has scored five double centuries in the last 17 months (having never scored one before that) and this is, after all, a man who is about to score his sixth double hundred and highest personal score of 243, at his home ground no less, and yet leave the stage disappointed. Why? Because he couldn’t nail the triple century—a feat achieved by only two other Indians in history, Virender Sehwag and Karun Nair. At this point, however, Kohli, batting on zero off zero, didn’t know that and neither did Delhi. Yet it all seemed a distinct certainty.

Kohli is now on strike and facing Lahiru Gamage, Sri Lanka’s industrious fast bowler, who has stationed a fielder in Kohli’s favourite scoring areas in the V—cover, mid-off, widish mid-on and midwicket. Gamage pitches the ball outside the batsman’s off stump, short of a length and angling towards the slips. This is no delivery to play a leg side stroke, unless the batsman is VVS Laxman or has borrowed his wrists. Kohli doesn’t have Laxman’s wrists. But he doesn’t care much for limitations either. With a bottom hand ostensibly made of starch, Kohli snaps his right wrist and swats the ball, impossibly, into a gap the size of a drain pipe between the wide mid-on and midwicket fielders, for four. It is the shot he will be remembered for long after he is done with the game. At the Delhi Test, the Kohli Swat, his greatest hit, is put on display three balls into his innings.

Unlike Tendulkar, Virat Kohli wasn't born perfect. But he got there by metamorphosing physically, from flabby to fit, and mentally, from brat to brilliant

Until this point, Kotla was immersed in the classic rhythms of a Test match—sinusoidal interludes of lulls and whirls in the energies of both the players on the field and the spectators in their seats. Now, following the early Kohli Swat, the stadium hums to the vibrations of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Ticktickticktickticktickticktick . Grown men beat their chests with their fists and break into bouts of jiggles and in the middle, the Sri Lankans have been zapped to a state of high alert, akin to airline passengers in a hostage situation. This hijack—of the Kotla, of our senses, of 11 hapless Sri Lankans—lasts nearly seven hours, spread over two days.

Slowly but surely during the course of his first session, the second session of the first day, Kohli thumbs the lid off each of his trademarks—the late dab, the lumberjack cut, the carving cover drive, the angled straight drive, the controlled pull. Low risk, high return strokes. Kohli’s trademarks, however, aren’t restricted to just his uniquely constructed repertoire of shots; they are also in his mannerisms that give away, like game-show clues, his single- minded keenness to succeed. The thwack of his bat against his pads after a false shot, head up and mouth hissing. The shadow practice following a hit straight to the fielder, willing himself, perhaps, to not miss the gap ever again. The howl from his gut for a second run. The glove-punching-willow clap when his partner, in this case opener Murali Vijay, hurries safely to the other end.

When Kohli began his innings, Vijay was batting on a score of 30 runs. When Vijay gets to his hundred, half way into the final session of the day, Kohli is on 94. Six runs later, he points his bat towards his applauding dressing room, then acknowledges the cheap seats brimming with Virat Kohlis in the East Stand. And because this is Delhi, he looks up at his late father beyond the greying skies.

But the East Stand Kohlis know as well as the one in the middle that the job is far from done. Half done, potentially. A third done, hopefully.

Teen sau maarega toh mazaa aayega?

EVERY SUPER INNINGS, just like the makings of a super hero, needs a worthy adversary. During his 136 in Chepauk, Tendulkar fought against his lousy back and a sensational bowling attack. Rahul Dravid’s 233 in Adelaide was against the weight of history and Laxman’s Eden Gardens epic of 281 was a battle against the word ‘impossible’. Heck, even Kohli’s unbeaten 104 in the first Test of this very series—as fine as rearguard hundreds come—was a knock that locked antlers with a grassy wicket and more significantly, the ticking clock.

For the first half of Kohli’s Delhi essay, Kohli had no adversaries. Not the pitch. Not his body. Not time. And most certainly not the Sri Lankans. Until the second day, that is, when Test cricket rose to a setting straight out of a post-apocalyptic novel. Under vast coils of poison, a contest between the worst of Delhi—its air—and the best of Delhi—Kohli—took place and those present at the Kotla on this surreal day will remember those few hours to be strange yet weirdly memorable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Unbeaten on 156 overnight, Kohli hares to his second double hundred in as many innings (only the second Indian to do so, after Vinod Kambli) shortly before lunch. As captain, no player had ever scored six double centuries before in the 140 year history of the game. Kohli has now done so in a period of 17 months—between July 2016 and now. By lunch, in conditions so obscene that it is deemed unfit for even a morning stroll, Kohli is breathing on a score of 225. Eleven short of his highest career score of 235; 30 short of the current Air Quality Index figure of 255; 75 away from a maiden triple century.

When play resumes ten minutes post noon on this mirthless Sunday, the pollution index has jumped to 396 on the AQI India app. Just a month earlier in November, when that number touched 400, the Government had declared a public health emergency and schools were shut down for a few days. Yet, today, an international cricket match is forced to continue. The app Plume is more direct with its appeal, crying “Airpocalypse”, with a dead man’s emoji with crosses for eyes. On the field, the cricketers from Sri Lanka enter wearing pollution masks (a sad first in this game), bought hurriedly from the markets of Old Delhi by their physio. In the stands and blissfully amused by the situation, unmasked fans prepare for the mother of all Kohli milestones—the 300.

Teen sau is on everyone’s lips even as Kohli gets to 236—eclipsing his previous best set at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai against England last year—with a dancing off-drive to the boundary off Gamage. But it goes nearly unnoticed as the paying public at the Kotla is busy ragging Gamage, who finds himself choking for a gulp of clean air—doubled down in his run up, coughing repeatedly to vent out his burning lungs. Sri Lanka’s captain Dinesh Chandimal pleads with the umpires to abandon play, and rightly so. But his plea falls on deaf ears, for this is an unprecedented request. Cricket’s age-old rule book has no laws or guides for umpires on what to do in case of extreme pollution. The 17-minute stand-off breaks Chandimal’s resolve. And Kohli’s rhythm as well.

When a sick Suranga Lakmal, Sri Lanka’s other fast bowler, exits the field midway through his over to vomit, play is brought to a halt once again. Lakmal leaves the ground to jeers (the same crowd wasn’t as unforgiving just two days later, when India’s Mohammed Shami threw up on the field during his spell), leaving Sri Lanka short of a player on the ground, forcing their trainer Nick Lee to wear a Test jersey and offer to field. Kohli spends this break on his back, sprawled by the side of the pitch. Even the city’s finest, momentarily, has been flattened by the pressures of the catastrophic Delhi sky.

Catastrophe strikes immediately after. First ball after the second break, Kohli’s batting partner, Ravichandran Ashwin, is dismissed. Minutes later, so is Kohli. Playing a spinner off his backfoot for perhaps the first time in this innings, Kohli is trapped LBW by the wily chinaman, Lakshan Sandakan. The Delhi boy trudges off the field, leaden-footed, almost unwilling to raise a bat that had notched 243 runs to the witnesses surrounding him. The crowd can now see the bearded face of Kohli seated on the dressing room balcony and everywhere they look, all seems bleak under the smoggy Delhi sky.

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